Smile at the CCTV – all China’s watching you

7 Oct

Thousands of web users are behind these babies

On 29 July, Deng Jialin, a businessman from the Chinese province of Sichuan, had a little bit of fun squeezing the boobs of the woman in the passenger seat of his car. Within a month, reported China Daily on October 6, Deng had become the celebrated “Breast Touching Brother” known to thousands of giggling Chinese Internet junkies. His picture appeared in full HD online, along with his name, the name of his former employer and his home address.

Deng had, of course, committed a crime – but even in China, a quick grope in the privacy of your car – as long as the “grope-ee” is OK with it – is not usually grounds for a fine.

No, Deng’s crime had in fact been to drive at 92 kmph in an 80 kmph zone. But any member of the Mianyang Traffic Police Detachment can look through speed camera data. And, unfortunately for Deng, a particularly infantile individual (or individuals – we still don’t know) had done just that.

It’s a well-worn niggle that Britain is the “most watched nation on Earth”. The Daily Mail informs us that “UK has 1% of the world’s population but 20% of its CCTV cameras“; The Telegraph warns that in the UK “Big Brother watches your every move”; while on the other side of the political spectrum, The Guardian bemoans how the “CCTV boom has failed to slash crime”.

All this may be true, but at least in the UK we have a few regulations. The Data Protection Act restricts the use of recordings and states that cameras have to be registered; the Information Commissioner’s Office requires all material to be swiftly deleted; CCTV officers have to be licensed. Yes, the press and the panickers do have a point, since many cameras manage to sidestep registration – as was hammered home in 2007 by research released by UK CCTV watchdog, CameraWatch. But then at least there is a UK CCTV watchdog.

This is not the case in China. In 2003, experts began to plan a data protection law, and in 2005 a draft was submitted, but this draft got lost in the recent central government reorganisation that merged the “informatization office”, which was responsible for the bill, with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. CCTV is still totally unregulated and in the hands of local government.

Of course, it’s no secret that they like to keep an eye on you in the good old People’s Republic. Uniformed guards stand outside most offices and flats, the dreaded chengguan (see previous post) lurk around every corner, and there’s always at least one “neighbour” posted outside my apartment building.

They even have CCTV in schools. Lu Xian, a former headmaster, remembers how they actually proved useful when footage allowed him to identify a mobile phone kleptomaniac who had made off with eight other pupils’ phones. However, he also remembers his own school days when two jokers were caught writing insulting notes to each other about the principal. “The principal actually got the camera and zoomed in on what they were writing on the note,” Lu Xian said. “Then when they hid the note, he used the video as proof.”

But this obsessive observation has now joined forces with two more of China’s less salubrious aspects. The first is the central government’s lax control over their army of government and local government officials.

The second is China’s obsession – and I mean obsession – with the Web. It was telling, for example, that when UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon held a debate with “the world” via social media on 14 September this year, over half the total traffic came not from Facebook and Twitter (which are of course blocked in China), but from the Chinese equivalent – Sina Weibo. But of course, love of online brings with it the good, the bad and, as in Deng’s case, the ugly.

Deng has not been the only one to suffer, either. In 2008, one poor couple found a three-minute video of them kissing at Shangai’s Youyi Road subway station, meticulously edited and posted online by three Shanghai Metro Company Workers, who even provided their own running commentary of the action. They were shunned by their friends and the man ended up quitting his job.

In the same year, a couple of jokers on the staff of the Shenzhen Traffic Police Bureau managed to position CCTV cameras to film into bedrooms and appartment buildings so they could post the resulting videos on their department website.

People were punished in these cases, but the abuses still go on as the number of CCTV cameras increases day by day. According to Beijing Daily in April, Beijing hosts more than 400,000 CCTV cameras, while Shenzhen and Shanghai municipal governments have set up 200,000. This of course leaves aside all those private – and, of course, totally unregulated – video cameras.

I’m all for CCTV that locates criminals, such as the rioters who destroyed parts of London in the riots in September. However, the watchers themselves need to be watched. As the police used CCTV to pinpoint rioters, they were constantly criticised by the public and scrutised by the press. The photos of the rioters they released had to pass through dozens of checks, and all unnecessary footage was deleted, according to police statements (which we hope to God are true).

It’s easy to slip over the boundary between security and invasion of privacy. The trouble in China is that they’ve slipped one boundary further into rampant voyeurism.

Take a CCTV camera, a dodgy government and a gaggle of online peeping Toms, and you have the perfect recipe for a good gander at someone else’s expense.

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